(CNN)The House Judiciary Committee will vote Thursday on a resolution defining the rules of the panel’s investigation into President Donald Trump as House Democrats struggle to define the committee’s probe that could ultimately lead to impeachment.
The House’s return to Washington this week after a six-week recess has been filled with Democrats offering contrasting explanations for the Judiciary Committee’s investigation: Chairman Jerry Nadler and other Democrats say they are conducting an impeachment inquiry or impeachment investigation, while Democratic leaders have refrained from labeling the investigation in that manner.The dissonant messages have prompted frustration among rank-and-file members, particularly those in competitive races wary of impeachment, and it even led to the House’s No. 2 Democrat walking back his statement on the committee’s investigation on Wednesday.Are Democrats conducting an impeachment inquiry? It depends who you askThursday’s vote constitutes the first time the Judiciary Committee has voted on an action tied to its impeachment probe. The vote will grant Nadler the ability to deem hearings as impeachment hearings. It will also allow staff to question witnesses at those hearings for an hour after members, will give the President’s lawyers the ability to respond in writing to public testimony and will allow the committee to collect information in a closed setting.The committee’s new procedures for its hearings could be on display as soon as next week, when former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is scheduled to appear on Tuesday. The committee in July subpoenaed Lewandowski and former White House aides Rick Dearborn and Rob Porter to testify on Tuesday, but it’s not clear if the White House will direct Dearborn and Porter not to appear, making the same immunity claims it has with former White House counsel Don McGahn and others.Read MoreBroader question frustrates DemocratsNadler and committee members say that adopting the resolution will make their investigation more effective as they gather information — through subpoenas, hearings and the courts — to decide whether to introduce articles of impeachment against the President. But the broader question — is the committee conducting an impeachment inquiry? — has flustered Democrats all week.To Nadler and many on the committee, the committee is conducting an impeachment investigation. They argue that the debate over how to label the investigation is merely semantics: they have stated publicly and in court filings that their investigation is part of an active effort to decide whether to pursue impeachment.House leadership, however, has taken a different tack. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries have all declined this week to say affirmatively that the committee’s investigation was an impeachment investigation or an impeachment inquiry, as Nadler has described it.”I don’t want to get caught in semantics,” Jeffries, who is a Judiciary Committee member, said when asked if the probe was an impeachment inquiry. “We all agree, from Speaker Pelosi through every single member of the House Democratic Caucus, that we have a constitutional responsibility to hold an out of control executive branch accountable.”Hoyer said “no” when asked whether the House was in an impeachment inquiry, but he later issued a statement clarifying his comments.”I thought the question was in regards to whether the full House is actively considering articles of impeachment, which we are not at this time,” Hoyer said. “I strongly support Chairman Nadler and the Judiciary Committee Democrats as they proceed with their investigation ‘to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House,’ as the resolution states. It is critical that Congress have access to all of the relevant facts, and we will follow those facts wherever they lead, including impeachment.”Hoyer’s statement, however, refrained from referencing an impeachment inquiry or investigation. Asked by CNN Wednesday evening whether he believed the committee was conducting an impeachment investigation, he declined to say: “You saw my statement — I’m not going to say anything else.”Semantic battle symbolizes broader divideRep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who has called the probe an impeachment inquiry, said the dispute is emblematic of broader divisions about what to do about impeachment. Is it wise to pursue, he said some have suggested, when the House knows the Senate won’t act?”There are 100 views out there about the right way of dealing with the President, even among people who agree he’s committed high crimes and misdemeanors,” Raskin said. “If you believe that we are not of one mind about how to proceed, you’re absolutely right. Nobody knows exactly, ultimately about how to proceed. But everybody believes we cannot let the President get away with corruption and malpractice in office.”While Democrats have suggested the dispute over labeling the panel’s investigation isn’t important as the work itself, the question of whether the committee is conducting an impeachment inquiry could have implications when the Judiciary Committee’s lawsuits go before a judge in the coming weeks.The committee is suing to obtain former special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury material and to force McGahn to testify, and it has argued in court filings its investigation is part of an active consideration of whether to impeach the President.Republicans say the committee is not conducting an impeachment inquiry at all, arguing the full House has not authorized a formal inquiry as it did under Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.”Formal impeachment proceedings have always been authorized by a vote of the full House, which Speaker Pelosi has been careful not to allow,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee. He argued the Democrat’s resolution was “a meaningless reiteration of existing committee authorities, allowing the chairman to keep this story in the news when moderate Democrats simply want it to go away.”